Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

The Most Exciting Place in Town

I’m not an employee of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Why then, do I spend most of my retirement days either at the Heritage Center or working on various projects with the assistance of the staff of the State Historical Society?

Why wouldn’t I?

In my opinion, the Heritage Center is the most interesting and exciting place in town.

Space on this blog will not permit a complete list of the reasons why I find the North Dakota Heritage Center such a fascinating place to spend my time. I do, though, want to touch on a couple.

I serve as president of the North Dakota Archaeological Association (NDAA). As an “enthusiast” (not a professional archaeologist), I am involved in research on a wide variety of topics and the presentation of that material to our members. I could, I suppose, do that research without the staff and resources of the State Historical Society, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun or productive.

A recent and ongoing project of the NDAA is the study of various aspects of the Fort Rice State Historic Site, a military post south of Mandan, ND, circa 1864. To prepare for a recent NDAA field trip to Fort Rice, I had the opportunity to work with State Historical Society staff in the Archaeology and Historic Preservation and Archives divisions.

Where do you begin a project as large as the 14-year history of a military post with a large cast of characters, documents, images, and stories? It’s easy. Just ask anybody in either division for information.

My first information request pertained to the availability of artifacts related to Fort Rice - those objects left behind after the occupation of the post. Wendi Field Murray, archaeology collections manager, and Meagan Schoenfelder, collections assistant, assured me that it was not a question of availability. It was more a question of what specific kind of artifact I was interested in. Long story short, I ended up with more information than I could use on what I termed the “bottles, buttons, and bullets” project. All of the artifacts are securely housed in the new, state-of-the-art collections rooms. There, the objects are carefully organized, cataloged, and available for examination (by appointment) and, in some cases, photography.


Top Left: Stamped brass eagle worn on enlisted man’s dress helmet at Fort Rice, circa 1872.
Bottom Left: Ale bottle, Fort Rice Military Post (13732.33)
Top Right: Plume socket for enlisted men’s dress helmet, circa 1872 (87.85.95)
Middle Right: .52 caliber “Ringtail” Sharps Carbine bullet
Bottom Right: Model 1859 Civil War bridle with “U.S” bit rosette (2002.11.310)

After I had chosen the images of the artifacts pertaining to my presentation on Fort Rice, I went upstairs to the State Archives. Again, no problem in assembling information. The question was not “if” the information was available. The question was, what specifically was I looking for? Sarah Walker, Greg Wysk, and Jim Davis are the people with the answers. The information I was looking for was available either on microfilm, in the periodical stacks, or in the climate-controlled archives of the State Historical Society. One particular image I was interested in was of the first buildings at Fort Rice. I was pretty sure a photo was not available. Jim located it in about three minutes!

Fort Rice

First Fort Rice, circa 1869/1870 (C1628)

What could have been a long, time-consuming search for material for my presentation was accomplished in no time with the assistance of the Society’s staff.

I have two other quick mentions.

The new archaeology lab is a continual source of amazement to me. Wednesday afternoons are a busy time in the lab when volunteers and archaeology enthusiasts, like me, come together to sort and quantify artifacts. Again, Wendi and Meagan are there to answer questions and to provide “on the job” training relating to those objects. It is a totally non-threatening and fun environment (and the sweets and treats they provide to the volunteers are another story!)

Archaeology Lab

State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeology lab

Finally, I have had the opportunity to work with the archaeology staff on more advanced areas of study; the lithic comparative collection – a collection of stone raw materials that were used by Native Americans to make projectile points and other stone tools, and the faunal collection, consisting of modern animal skeletons that are used for comparative research.

I could go on and on but I have research to do, and I know where to find the answers I am looking for… the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Please Don’t Touch!

I have the coolest job ever! As a curator at the State Museum, I get to work with and protect artifacts that run the gamut of “cool,” from moon rocks to antique cars. The reason I get so excited about what I do is that I am a tactile person. For me it’s one thing to read about the Battle of Little Big Horn in a high school history book and a completely different thing to hold in my hand an actual bullet that was fired at the battle. That bullet was there. It was a witness to, even a participant in history. It gives an abstract idea a physical form. That is exactly why we use artifacts in our galleries—to provide that connection for people and get them excited about North Dakota’s history.

As you’re walking around any museum, you’ll probably see at least one sign that says, “Please Do Not Touch.” I understand the temptation to touch. People see something in the gallery, and maybe it provides the connection for them that it does for me, so they reach over a barrier and touch it. When you touch an artifact, it doesn’t crumble away into dust and gives no immediate reaction. However, given enough time, 5-10 seconds of contact can cause a surprising amount of damage.

When handling artifacts, museum staff uses gloves. The main reason is that we all—myself included—have oil, sweat, dirt and other residues on our hands, even after washing them. Given enough time and contact, those residues build up. That is especially true for museum artifacts, because cleaning them requires a great deal of care and should rarely be done. The cornerstone you see below has been on display in our main gallery for many years, but that brown residue you see along the top edge wasn’t there when the stone went on display. It is oil, sweat and dirt that have built up from decades worth of touches.

Residue on cornerstone

The brown residue you see along the top edge of the cornerstone is the built-up dirt, oil, and sweat from decades worth of touches while it has been on display. It is the cornerstone of North Dakota’s first state capitol building, which burned in 1930.

Some materials react to the oils found on the skin. Notice the fingerprint on this piece of copper seen below. It has caused corrosion on the surface of the metal that is very difficult, if not impossible, to remove, meaning someone’s fingerprint will probably be etched into the surface forever.

Fingerprint on copper artifact

You can see the fingerprint on the side of this copper artifact. The oils in your skin can react with some metals and given enough time, can permanently oxidize a fingerprint onto the surface.

Some artifacts are dangerous to touch. Many older taxidermy mounts were prepared using arsenic, because it kills insects that might otherwise feed on the specimen. Arsenic is also quite poisonous to humans, and some mounts in our collection have tested positive for arsenic contamination. You should never touch a taxidermy specimen that you see in a museum, because you may get a little more than you bargained for.

Taxidermy mounts

Arsenic was used as a preservative in many older taxidermy mounts, because it kills insects that might otherwise try to eat the mount. Some of the specimens in the state museum’s collection have tested positive for arsenic and many others show signs of contamination. That is a very good reason to never touch taxidermy specimens in museums and take care when handling any mounts in private collections.

On the leg of this elk, which you can see in our Early Peoples museum gallery, an area of fur and skin has been worn away by people rubbing the fur. Unfortunately, some of them probably took home a bit of arsenic.

Leg of elk mount

The image above shows the leg of the elk mount from the previous photo. We know he was on display for many years, and visitors apparently enjoyed touching his leg! The fur and even some of the skin are worn away. You can really see the damage that can happen with enough time and enough contact.

When you resist the temptation to touch an artifact, you are helping us to preserve it for future generations to see and enjoy, and you may be keeping yourself safe as well!